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The London Chronicles, Vol. 4: Great Britain Lives Up to Its Name

Everything, even the weather, fell into place during the greatest weekend in U.K. sports history

On my 14th day in London, it finally started pouring rain. If you include the Opening Ceremony — or as it would later be known, “The Lamest Episode of Game of Thrones Ever” — we had somehow finished our first nine Summer Olympics days without enduring a legitimate downpour. That meant London had tossed something of a weather no-hitter. Was this more or less improbable than a New York Met going on a date with destiny? Hard to say. But after soaking in nine days of sun, nobody could complain about a storm ruining Sunday … even if it meant Usain Bolt sprinting through puddles, or Andy Murray winning the gold with a roof covering him.

The rain kept coming for most of the morning, slowed down before lunch, and within a few minutes … wait, was that the sun again? London spent the rest of the day battling through the 10th inning, waving off the bullpen, keeping its weather no-hitter going and moving six outs closer to Harvey Haddix. Look, we always knew Great Britain was the “irrational confidence guy” of countries — what other country would throw the word “Great” into its own name??? — but even the Brits couldn’t have expected their Olympics to turn out so splendidly. At least so far.

Everything crested on Saturday night, our first day of track and field at their new 80,000-seat stadium in Olympic Park, when two Brits captured gold medals within a few minutes of one another. To put this in perspective, no British athlete had won an individual Olympic gold medal in England since 1908 … you know, the last time the Cubs won the World Series. One of the gold medalists was a redheaded long jumper named Greg Rutherford, who looks like Brian Scalabrine’s love child. The other was an attractive heptathlete named Jessica Ennis, the unofficial “face” of London 2012 and a legitimate threat to David Beckham’s local popularity title.

The Brits juggled a variety of anxieties heading into these Olympics — the threat of terrorism, the possibility of a two-week monsoon, real concerns of traffic gridlock or the tube breaking down, and anything involving the words “Prince Harry” and “late night” — but lurking beneath everything was the very real (and sobering) possibility that their athletes would fail in their own Olympics. Americans can’t possibly understand that feeling. The Olympics always turn out the same for us: We show up, we win more medals than we lose, we create a few new heroes, we go home. Sixteen years ago, our stars had names like Michael Johnson, Amy Van Dyken, Shannon Miller, Lindsay Davenport, Dan O’Brien and Kurt Angle (yes, that Kurt Angle). In 2012, they have names like Michael Phelps, Gabby Douglas, Missy Franklin, Serena Williams, Ashton Eaton and Jordan Burroughs. In 2028, we don’t know what the names will be; we just know there WILL be names. The Olympics will always be a successful, reliable franchise for America, no different than Starbucks or 60 Minutes.

It’s different for the Brits. I never understood their Olympic plight until one of their TV stations ran a special called Britain’s Greatest Gold Medallists, which I inadvertently started watching, then couldn’t stop watching. They counted down backward from no. 20, starting with Chris Brasher (runner), James Cracknell (rower), Steve Ovett (runner), David Wilkie (swimmer), Victoria Pendleton (sprint cyclist), Linford Christie (sprinter), Elizabeth Wilkins (swimmer), Sally Gunnell (hurdler), Jack Beresford (rower), Mary Peters (pentathlete) and Jonathan Edwards (triple jumper).1

By the way? I made one of those names up. Can you guess which one? (I threw the answer in this footnote.)2 Of those first 10 names, I only remembered Ovett, Christie and Edwards. The 10th and ninth names (swimmer Rebecca Adlington and cyclist Bradley Wiggins) rang mildly familiar. Just mildly. Only when they reached no. 8 (Torvill and Dean, the famous figure skating pair) did I find myself saying, “Oh yeah! They were awesome!” and getting angry that they weren’t higher, especially after seeing the next three names (sailor Ben Ainslie, runner Kelly Holmes and rower Matthew Pinsent). They were followed by three “household names” that any sports fan knows (Sir Chris Hoy, Daley Thompson and Sebastian Coe), and finally, rower Steve Redgrave in the top spot.

That’s right … a rower was Britain’s greatest gold medalist. You could look at this two ways: diplomatically (“I knew they loved rowing in Great Britain, but man, they really love rowing!”) or sarcastically (“Could somebody break the news to British people that rowing isn’t totally a sport?”). Either way, it gave me a greater appreciation of what Rob Lowe pulled off in the last 20 minutes of Oxford Blues, as well as the general mood of the Brits.

You couldn’t blame our hosts for keeping their guards up. The English love soccer as much as Americans love all our sports combined, yet their national team stumbles whenever it matters most. This Great Britain Olympic team was no different. The Brits have Wimbledon, the most important tennis tournament and an iconic sports venue, only they can’t find a local hero to win it. Now they had a handful of gold-medal hopefuls (including Ainslie, Rutherford and 10k runner Mo Farah) but only two that truly mattered: Murray (hoping to erase his Wimbledon demons) and Ennis (poster girl for this Olympics). Would they come through?

Murray had blown enough Wimbledons that expectations were manageably low for him (especially with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic looming). Ennis didn’t have that luxury. She was the one Brit who had to win, the one who received the lion’s share of attention heading into these Games. You know the Brits truly adore someone when they give them nickname status. Beckham is Becks. McCartney is Macca. Prince William is Will. Ennis? For the locals, she’s “Jess” and only “Jess.” Her final heptathlon event (the 800-meter race) made Saturday night a much-desired ticket; everyone wanted to be there if Jess broke Great Britain’s 104-year drought. If she failed for whatever reason, they still had Farah going in the 10,000-meter race. Not a bad consolation prize.

(Then again … he wasn’t Jess.)

The Brits weren’t nearly as focused on Saturday night’s long jump, even though Rutherford and teammate Chris Tomlinson were two of the favorites for the gold. Once a marquee Summer Olympics event, the long jump lost its luster these past two decades for a variety of reasons, including …

1. Carl Lewis retired 15 years ago, leaving the sport without a recognizable star, much less a role model for the next generation of fledgling long jumpers. If you were a 16-year-old who could run like the wind in 2008, would you want to be the next Usain Bolt … or the next Irving Saladino?

2. There’s too much money in sprinting these days for the world’s best sprinters to say, “I think I’ll risk my sprinting chances to try to win the long jump, too.” Even current record holder Mike Powell believes Usain Bolt could break Powell’s record of 8.95 meters (set 21 years ago) … you know, if Usain Bolt cared about breaking that record. And it doesn’t seem like he cares.3

3. Since it’s so easy to foul in the long jump, some potential competitors might believe it’s just too risky of a sport. You only get three chances in Round 1 to complete a good jump; then, the top eight finishers advance to the medal round. During Saturday night’s event, 2008 champ Saladino fouled on all three of his attempts. You know what happened next? Saladino packed his stuff and walked off. Imagine you’re a potential world-class sprinter weighing the odds for possible gold medals — would you gravitate toward a safer sport like sprinting, or a sport in which you could foul on your first two jumps (on the biggest night of your life, no less), then stare at that sandpit on your third attempt knowing you might be going home (and losing four years of training, basically) if you screw up your steps by even a fraction of an inch?

4. In 2012, an era in which our attention spans have been shot to hell and immediate gratification trumps everything else, the long jump never really shifted with the times. Someone jumps … they land in the sand in what seems to be the exact same spot that everyone else just landed in … they roll over, stand up and stare at the mark … some fat dude in a blazer wobbles out and rams a pole in the sand … you wait … you wait … you wait … you wait … and then you find out the exact distance. Really, we can’t speed this up? We can’t rig the sandpit electronically to spit out the exact distance — or even the estimated distance until it’s actually measured — right as the jumper lands?4

5. You know how athletes keep getting better and better at sports, to the degree that it almost seems inconceivable they could keep improving? The opposite is happening in the long jump. The event’s six longest jumps ever happened in 1991, 1968, 1991, 1987, 1988 and 1994. If you look at the longest jumps by year, 2010’s best mark (8.47 meters) and 2011’s best mark (8.54 meters) are the two of the five lowest yearly records since 1980, with the other three coming in 2001 (8.41), 2002 (8.52) and 2003 (8.53). Since Lewis and Powell walked away, the best long jumper was Dwight Phillips, an American who jumped 8.59 meters in Athens (the fourth-longest Olympic jump ever) and 8.74 meters in 2009 (the longest jump of the past 20 years). Did you ever think that Dwight Phillips would leave such a big void?

For those reasons and two others I probably missed, the long jump has turned into the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue of Olympic events — in other words, most people watch it thinking, Hey, remember when we used to care about the long jump?

I am not one of those people.

I still enjoy the long jump even if I couldn’t remember on Saturday night who won in 2008 (Saladino), who held the current world record (Powell) and if anyone ever jumped nine meters, or 30 feet (no). My most indelible ’84 Olympics memory wasn’t Mary Lou Retton, but Lewis and the long jump — not what actually happened (he won the gold but couldn’t break Bob Beamon’s record, jumping only 8.54 meters), but the anticipation of what MIGHT happen (the possibility of Beamon’s record going down), and then the ensuing disappointment after Lewis pulled a Milton Berle on his first jump (pulling out just enough to win), attempted just one more jump (fouling on it), then packed it in to save himself for the 200-meter sprint. Maybe he could have pulled this off in a foreign country, but in Los Angeles? Come on. The fans were outraged. They booed and booed and booed, causing Lewis to famously say afterwards, “They were booing because they wanted to see more of Carl Lewis. I guess that’s flattering.”

I remember being as furious as every other American; it was one of those moments that tainted every other memory of the day. You were the one who told us you were gonna break Beamon’s record, you dick! Now you’re packing it in with four jumps to go???? YOU DICK!!!!!! At the same time, those two Lewis jumps have fallen through the cracks historically. Nobody remembers how exciting they were in the moment. For me, they’re right up there with every Pedro Martinez start in 1999 and 2000 — it wasn’t what happened as much as the ceiling for what might happen. That’s what made that day so magical, and that’s what made every Pedro start so magical. You just didn’t know.

And really, that’s why I love the long jump, too. When Beamon obliterated the record by soaring nearly 10 yards in Mexico City — the most unbelievable Olympic moment that’s ever happened, as well as one of those rare sports moments that becomes slightly more flabbergasting every year — the leap itself was so unfathomable, so technically perfect, so lightning-in-a-bottle-ish that it took officials nearly 20 minutes just to measure it. (Beamon actually outjumped the limits of their measuring equipment, as insane as that sounds.) Once they finally figured it out, Beamon heard the official distance, struggled to translate it from meters (8.90) to feet (29 feet, 2½ inches), finally figured out how far he traveled, then became so overwhelmed that he collapsed to the floor and briefly had a seizure. Name me another instance of an athlete accomplishing something so staggering that it gave him a seizure. You can’t.

Beamon never came close to approaching that distance again — not at any point of his career, which is another reason why I love that jump so much. In the long jump, you never know when every single piece will fall into place at once — the wind, the steps, the pushoff, the landing, everything. So imagine my delight after landing tickets for Saturday night, then realizing that we ended up on the same side as the long jump.

For the most part, it’s better to watch track and field on television than sitting inside an 80,000-seat stadium. There are exceptions — you’re about to read about two of them — but your experience from event to event hinges on seat location more than anything. On Saturday night, one side of the stadium had the finish line for every running event; the other side featured the long jump and discus. Most spectators would have rather sat near the finish line; I actually loved being on the other side because, again, I’m a weirdo and I love the long jump.

Our night kicked off with the 400-meter men’s hurdles semifinals and the start of the women’s discus final, followed by me spending 10 solid minutes explaining the discus to my daughter (visiting from Los Angeles). She understood the concept, but the point eluded her.

“When would anyone actually do this?” she wondered, firing questions like bullets. “Where do you buy a discus? How heavy is it? How do you practice? I couldn’t do this at school, right? I’d hit someone in the head, right? Would it hurt if you got hit in the head by the discus?”

And that’s when I decided not to take her to the triple jump or steeplechase. Meanwhile, the events kept rolling on. The women’s 100-meter heats started happening, as well as the start of the men’s long jump final — suddenly we had three events going and my daughter was saying, “Daddy, I don’t know where to look! Where should I look?” Let’s just say that she enjoyed the energy of track and field much more than tennis at Wimbledon three days earlier.

Bill Simmons

Yup, that’s an action shot of my daughter conked out at Wimbledon during the Lleyton Hewitt/Novak Djokovic match.5 She was much more awake on Saturday night, getting a sincere kick out of any long jumper who turned to the crowd and started a slow-clap for themselves (which about half of them did).6 Rutherford grabbed an early lead (jumping 8.21 meters), advanced to the medal round with Tomlinson … and suddenly, Jessica Ennis was standing out there trying to win her gold medal, and absolutely nobody cared about the long jump. Rutherford’s winning jump (8.31 meters) either happened during Ennis’s 800-meter heptathlon race or right afterward. I missed it, and as far as I can tell, just about everyone else did, too. We were all watching Jess.

This one was really something. Even if her lead was big enough that only an errant discus could have stopped her, the Brits still needed Jess to finish in style — preferably with one last victory, and if she could break 7,000 points (which has only happened three times), even better. In the last few months, I was fortunate enough to witness a Stanley Cup clincher, an NBA title clincher and a Super Bowl–clinching comeback — actually, that last one was unlucky (for me), but whatever — and this was louder than any of those events. Eighty thousand people crammed into one of those old-school, Rose Bowl–type stadiums, with just about everyone pulling for one person. After the race started, Ennis jogged by our side and my section basically morphed into one deafening “COMEONJESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!” They were waving flags, whistling, screaming, doing anything possible to push her along.

Coming around the final turn, Jess7 was sandwiched behind two rivals and easily could have coasted to third place (and the gold). But nobody wanted that. The next 20 seconds were straight out of a sports movie. She made her move and quickly grabbed the lead, with the fans totally, completely and irrevocably losing their shit. The noise they made could have drowned out a fighter jet fly-by. And it kept coming and coming. Ever been in a baseball park when someone is going for an inside-the-park home run, or a football stadium as someone is bringing back a kick for a touchdown? How the noise builds and builds and eventually just crests and stays there? That’s what it sounded like. Only louder. And crazier.

The crowd certainly invigorated Jess, who kept running faster and faster — how was she doing this??? — pulled away from the pack, crossed the finish line and unleashed one of the happiest celebrations I’ve ever seen. Just utter delirium. Having been part of some pretty giddy crowds over the years — Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS, Bird stealing the ball against the Pistons and the ’81 Celtics beating Philly in Game 7, to name four — this reaction ranked right up there with any of them. I found myself living vicariously through the jubilant Brits. How could you not? WaytogoJessssssssssssssssssssssss!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And just like that, the pressure lifted once and for all. No matter what happened for the rest of the 2012 Olympics, they would always have those nine sunny days, and they’d always have Jess. Nobody knew it better than she did, by the way. She draped herself in a British flag and jogged around the track, soaking in cheers from every crevice of the stadium. My daughter decided later that this was the best part of winning a gold medal: Draping yourself in your country’s flag and celebrating with that victory lap. It made her want to compete in the Olympics someday, which made me happy — you take your kid to an event like that hoping something will resonate with them, and from what I could gather, that moment will resonate with her. Well, at least until she’s 16 and loafing through some 800-meter race as I’m giving her the stink-eye.

Somewhere in the middle of this chaos, Rutherford was sitting on his 8.31 mark and fending off the last few competitors. He clinched the gold just a few minutes after Jess finished her victory lap, getting one last gravy jump (and one last chance to ignite the crowd) … and fouling. A fitting way to end the worst Olympic long jump in 40 years, right? Like the Brits cared. Their third gold came about 45 minutes later, when Farah polished off his own notable finishing kick to grab the 10,000-meter gold. His only mistake was following Jess; maybe the emotionally drained Brits rallied for the final few laps and the homestretch, but it wasn’t quite the same. Whether Farah did enough to crack the next Britain’s 20 Greatest Gold Medallists show in 2016 remains to be seen.

And Jessica Ennis? If she doesn’t crack the top 10, I would be shocked. She looks like a more chiseled Hayden Panettiere. Her smile lights up an 80,000-seat arena. She came through when it mattered. She delivered the sports-movie ending that everyone in Britain wanted. The only way she could top what happened? By marrying Prince Harry … and don’t rule it out. What a night.

On the way home, we stopped at a convenience store for candy and noticed that the guy behind the counter was beaming. He asked if we were coming from Olympic Park, listened to us rave about the night, then said proudly, “We’re third in medals right now.”

He should have just added, “And don’t think the sun won’t shine for another week.” I may have even believed him.

The following day, Murray made his bid for the 20 Greatest special by absolutely demolishing Roger Federer at Wimbledon in the finals, officially making it the greatest weekend in recent British sports history. I skipped that one to avoid being late for Sunday night at Olympic Stadium, which doubled as the single toughest ticket of the 2012 Olympics:8 Usain Bolt battling the greatest 100-meter field ever assembled. I talked to a number of Olympics junkies before leaving for England, including a few writers who have covered the Games. Everyone told me the same thing:

You have to go see the 100 in person. You have to. You just have to.

And so I played it safe, showing up two hours early and grabbing a choice seat in the lower press section: on the side of the finish line, about 30 rows up, directly at the 70-meter mark. If Saturday night was like a UFC pay-per-view (multiple quality events, three hours of consistent entertainment), then Sunday night was more like a lopsided boxing pay-per-view. Every other event was relegated to the undercard; “Bolt vs. Every Other Sprinter” was the main event. The high jumpers, hurdlers, hammer throwers, triple jumpers and steeplechase runners certainly didn’t care. They were doing their thing. But you could feel that buzz building as the night went along. Just like a prizefight.

So it made perfect sense when three of America’s basketball stars (Kevin Love, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant) appeared and took seats 20 feet away from me. You can’t have a prizefight without celebrities, right? Eventually, James Harden and his beard joined them. I actually felt sorry for them for about 20 seconds — after all, spectators were huddling around them and rudely snapping pictures like they were zoo animals — until remembering that, except for Harden, they’re all ridiculously wealthy (and his payday is coming). Eventually, LeBron and Carmelo tried to join them, couldn’t find a seat, settled in the standing-room section behind the lower press section, nearly caused a cell phone picture riot, then were moved to a slightly more protected section.

Maybe 10 minutes before the 100-meter final started, Chris Paul, Andre Iguodala and Russell Westbrook showed up without seats, then squeezed into the Durant/Love section because everyone else was standing at that point. My favorite part: one usher telling another usher, “It’s fine if they’re standing — they said that, if everyone sits down, they’ll just sit on somebody’s lap.” From there, I was rooting for everyone to sit so I could take a picture of Westbrook sitting on Durant’s lap, or even better, Chris Paul sitting on Kobe’s lap. Never happened. When Usain Bolt is gunning for a world record at the Olympics, you stand. Everyone stands.

The race itself was breathtaking. The runners shed their warm-ups, stretched and allowed the drama to build. When they took their blocks, the tension inside the stadium felt exactly like those last few precious seconds before a championship fight. You wait, you wait, you wait, you wait. Your heart is pounding. You don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s no place you would rather be. And then, the gun goes off and human beings start moving at a speed that just doesn’t resemble … anything.

Halfway through the race, Bolt started pulling away from the pack and somehow shrank the track. In other words, he was so physically overpowering, he actually made the track seem smaller. I have only seen one other athlete pull off anything resembling that: whenever LeBron jumps into a passing line, swipes an errant pass and explodes from midcourt to the rim in four or five stupefying steps. Whenever that happens, he shrinks the court. This was even more astounding. Usain Bolt was shrinking an 80,000-seat stadium.

In the stands, you could only hear this sound: “Whooooooooooooooooaaaaaaa!” Bolt ripped through the finish line in 9.63 seconds, dragging the field with him — including poor Tyson Gay, who submitted the fifth-fastest time in Olympic history and somehow didn’t medal. Maybe we didn’t witness a new world record, but we saw an Olympic record. And better than that, we watched someone become immortal. Fifty years from now, my grandkids will ask me if I ever saw Usain Bolt run at the Olympics. I will say yes. They will be impressed.

(And no, they probably won’t be as interested in the rest of the 2012 Olympics, and how everything magically fell into place for London for two weeks … but I will tell them that story, too.)

Filed Under: College Sports, The U

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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